A senior Cambodian official said Tuesday the government would give the US or any other country that wanted to resettle 905 Montagnard asylum seekers under UN protection in Cambodia permission to do so.
“We don’t want to have any refugees coming here, but the problem exists and we want to see it solved as soon as possible,” said Om Yentieng, an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, who met Tuesday with several ambassadors.
“If we cannot find any solution, and if there is a third country that wants to receive them—and receive 100 percent of them—it is necessary for Cambodia to reply positively…. The Montagnards have a lot of support in the world, and if the US doesn’t want to take them, maybe some other country will,” he said.
US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann told The Associated Press on Tuesday that Cambodia had given permission to resettle the Montagnards in the US.
Montagnards in a UN High Commissioner for Refugees camp in Mondolkiri province were being hastily prepared Tuesday for a move to Phnom Penh amid fears that Vietnamese authorities—who have entered the camp repeatedly—may try to force them back to Vietnam, Reuters reported, quoting sources in the province.
Following last week’s decision by the UNHCR to pull out of a Montagnard repatriation agreement negotiated with Vietnam and Cambodia, the focus has quickly shifted to asylum elsewhere for the Montagnards, who began fleeing Vietnam’s Central Highlands a year ago after government crackdowns against them.
The US took at least 38 asylum seekers last year, and has maintained that resettlement in the US remains an option for some, if not all, of the Montagnards under UNHCR care in camps in Mondolkiri and Ratanakkiri provinces.
“The ball is in the UNHCR’s hands and they are waiting for a formal request from the Cambodians [to start the resettlement process],” Wiedemann said Tuesday evening. “That step has not been taken, but indications are it will be taken very soon. I think things are generally in good shape.”
A refugee officer from the US State Department is currently in Mondolkiri, where more than 500 Montagnards are housed in a UNHCR camp.
Monday and Tuesday saw a flurry of high-level meetings between diplomats in Phnom Penh. A special envoy from Vietnam met Tuesday morning with Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, according to Chum Sounry, press officer for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Meetings were held later Tuesday between the US, Cambodia and the UNHCR, although the UNHCR’s chief in Phnom Penh, Nikola Mihajlovic, said Tuesday afternoon that the agency had yet to be officially contacted about resettling any asylum seekers.
“We have not at all been contacted—we have only unofficial information,” he said.
Despite the UNHCR’s abandonment of the repatriation agreement, Vietnam continues to say it is abiding by the tripartite effort to return the Montagnards.
Vietnamese-organized visits to the Mondolkiri camp by asylum seekers’ relatives continued this week, and Vietnamese Ambassador Nguyen Duy Hung said Tuesday, “We are still discussing very seriously implementing the agreement.”
Critics fear the UNHCR’s decision to pull out will be used by Vietnam to seize some, if not all, of the asylum seekers, who they have called “illegal escapees” and whose return they have demanded for the last year.
Vietnam has yet to be informed of an offer by Washington to resettle the Montagnards, Vietnam’s foreign ministry said Tuesday in Hanoi.
“We have no information about American intentions,” said ministry spokeswoman Phan Thuy Thanh.
About 130 Montagnards have returned voluntarily since repatriations were suspended in February. Almost 100 others have been forcibly deported to Vietnam, where human rights workers claim they face abuse and imprisonment. Rights workers estimate that at least 540 Montagnards were returned during the last year before they were able to reach the UNHCR camps in Cambodia.
Many Phnom Penh-based diplomats now say it is Cambodia’s responsibility to ensure the safety of the Montagnards in the camps.
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara and Agence France-Presse)